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What are you eating?

Consumers have learned to recognize and avoid a host of processed-food foes: monosodium glutamate, hydrogenated fats, high-fructose corn syrup, myriad preservatives and a variety of "artificial" ingredients.

Yet the ultimate Frankenfoods still elude many health-conscious shoppers, even those who routinely read labels. Genetically modified organisms — GMOs — are never identified as such, but they lurk at almost every level of the processed-food industry and morph into an array of foodlike substances, most derived from corn and soybeans. Think deceptively benign terms such as "whey," "malt," "food starch" and "fructose," in addition to the tongue-twisters methylcellulose, cyclodextrin and many more.

"It's when you get into ... those fractioned parts of corn and soy that the processed-food industry uses ... that's what makes food cheap," says Annie Hoy, outreach manager for the Ashland Food Co-op.

Genetic engineering, the science that creates GMOs, forces the DNA from one species into a different — usually entirely unrelated — species. Among the most infamous examples is the splicing of salmon-scale genes into tomato DNA to yield fruits with stronger skins.

Scientists' goal is to engineer foods that are easier to grow, more productive, resistant to disease or spoilage, or just more visually appealing. These traits cannot transpire outside a laboratory nor result from traditional breeding methods and often involve the use of bacteria or viruses in the engineering.

Proponents argue that consumers are getting better products and manufacturers are ensuring a stable food supply. Citing corporate profits as the driving factor, opponents argue that genetic engineering was not adequately tested before being introduced into the United States' food supply, so there's no way to know the long-term effects of consumption. Meanwhile, the number of GMOs grows while the Food and Drug Administration hasn't made any move toward assessing GMOs' safety or reviewing new ones entering the market.

"It's like the choice is taken away," says Terry Johnson, natural-foods manager for Food 4 Less in Medford. "(Shoppers) would just like to know."

The federal government, however, does provide the ultimate defense against GMOs in its organic certification. The U.S. Department of Agriculture fielded more public comments about the GMO issue than any other when the organic standards were up for review in the mid-1990s, says Hoy. Outside the realm of USDA certified-organic, says Hoy, the closest thing to widespread labeling of GMOs is the designation of milk free of bovine-growth hormone, which is genetically engineered.

"That's where it all begins for the conventional food eater," says Hoy. "People read the label, and they make a conscious choice."

A newer label, "Non-GMO Project Verified," has been appearing on food packages for the past three years. The only third-party non-GMO verification in North America has more than 6,000 products and adds more on almost a daily basis. The nonprofit group lays claim to the natural-products industry's fastest-growing label, constituting nearly $3 billion in annual sales.

"It's a huge segment," says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for the Ashland Food Co-op. "It costs these people some big bucks to get this done," she adds, explaining that there is "rigorous" chemical testing of raw ingredients that is repeated on a finished food product.

GMO products and their clean counterparts were the focus of a Co-op effort that culminated in October with Non-GMO Month. Shelf tags, displays, cooking demonstrations and contests pointed customers toward Non-GMO Project goods, along with the organization's pocket-sized Non-GMO Shopping Guide. The Co-op also promoted a smartphone application that offers frequent updates. Medford Food Co-op launched a similar campaign in October.

"I think it's a trustworthy option," says Amey Broeker, Medford Food Co-op's wellness and bulk-foods manager. "That makes it a lot easier for the consumer."

Shopping guides listing vetted brand names can be downloaded (or paper copies purchased) at www.nongmoshoppingguide.com, which also offers quick-hit tips, echoed by Hoy, Johnson, Shaw, Broeker and others working in natural foods.

Among the easiest strategies, they say, other than buying organic, is to eat whole foods. GMOs are found far less frequently in stores' produce sections and in items that exist as close to their natural state as possible.

"Make things from scratch," says Hoy. "Minimize your consumption of processed foods; GMOs are in processed foods," she adds, explaining that the advice extends to beverages, namely soda, and condiments such as maple-flavored syrup and ketchup, all of which contain high-fructose corn syrup.

"You might as well just call it liquid GMO, because that's exactly what it is."

Pepsi products, still "unbelievably" popular, remain on the menu at MacLevin's Whole Foods Restaurant in Jacksonville, despite owners' vocal opposition to GMOs and their infiltration of local farmland, sugar beets being the main point of contention.

"Genetically modified foods invade everything," says co-owner Penelope Levin. "What does natural mean now?"

Levin and husband Jeffrey sought a healthier lifestyle in their move from the Los Angeles area about 15 years ago to Oregon. When they opened a restaurant a few months later, they "knew the difference between organic and nonorganic" but couldn't conceive of all the pitfalls they would encounter trying to purchase truly wholesome ingredients.

"Some of the simplest things ... you cannot buy them for a reasonable price if they are USDA certified-organic or non-GMO," says Jeffrey Levin.

"The littlest things ... we just no longer pick up off the shelf," says Penelope Levin. "Any salad dressing you buy, you really have to look what's in it."

For that reason, the Levins are considering making their own ketchup and barbecue sauce. This comes on the heels of years of pinpointing GMOs — first in soy milk, then Gardenburgers— and concluding that the only way to avoid them was to make more items from scratch or purchase them organic. They ditched eggs from "cage-free" hens, which ate GMO feed, for organic ones. Their hamburger, with a certified-organic beef patty on a homemade bun, is GMO-free provided customers pass on the ketchup. They recommend house-made, organic strawberry lemonade instead of soda.

Fried foods, however, remain a sore point. About a decade ago, the Levins could afford to drive to Eugene and purchase organic canola oil, which has since quadrupled in cost. Although they take every measure to minimize absorption of their nonorganic oil with proper frying techniques, it's an unavoidable evil if they want to serve french fries, sweet-potato fries and their beloved Jewish latkes.

"I would rather give up the fryer," says Penelope Levin. "Those are the last vestiges of (GMOs) we have in here."

Less conscientious restaurants are landmines of GMO foods, a fact that health-conscious consumers seem to forget while dining out. Even the Levins, tired after a day of working in their own kitchen, capitulate to the likelihood of eating GMOs at the few establishments they patronize. The only way they — or anyone else — could avoid it would be to stop eating out.

"We are really human about this," says Penelope Levin. "We are trying our very best."

Sarah Lemon is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. She can be reached at 541-776-4487 or slemon@mailtribune.com.